Turning Point 3: Virtue, Vice, and Votes for Women

  • By Priscilla Long and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 11/02/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9278
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This is the third in a special series of essays commissioned by The Seattle Times to examine pivotal turning points in Seattle and King County history. This essay examines the struggle for woman suffrage and its relationship to movements for prohibition and other social reforms. The essay was first published on November 2, 2000. It is by Priscilla Long with special input by Cassandra Tate, Mildred Andrews, Greg Lange, David Wilma, and Walt Crowley.

Virtue, Vice, and Votes for Women

As the new Washington Territorial Legislature neared the end of its first session in 1854, Seattle’s leading pioneer, Arthur Denny, proposed to amend an election law "to allow all white females over the age of 18 to vote."

It was an uncharacteristically radical suggestion by the conservative entrepreneur. No major jurisdiction in the United States had yet enfranchised women, and there were only about 20 voting age white females in all of King County. Denny emphasized the word "white" to exclude Native Americans and mixed race offspring of white men and Indian women who could claim citizenship by virtue of their fathers. (Such racism may offend modern sensitivities, but at least Washington Territory did not bar entry to African Americans, as did Oregon.)

Denny’s motion lost by one vote and an historic opportunity was squandered, but the issue did not die. Women in Washington struggled for another 56 years to finally secure the vote on November 8, 1910, just 90 years ago. The rest of the nation caught up a decade later with ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Vice and Versa

The local battle for women's suffrage was played out within a larger tug-of-war between the champions of middle class virtue, progressive reform, and, especially, prohibition, and the economic and political forces that benefited from an "open town" policy permitting prostitution, gambling, and saloons. The latter feared that their lucrative vices would vex enfranchised women into banning them -- and they were right.

Much was a stake. The early settlements on central Puget Sound were rough sawmill and logging towns, and on payday, all roads led to Seattle's bars and brothels. Tolerance of vice divided Seattle socially, economically, politically -- and physically. Mill Street or "Skid Road" (now Yesler Way) became the border between the tonier business and residential districts on the north, and the seamy "Lava Beds" to the south.

The issue of vice divided women themselves. While "respectable" women of all classes were horrified by the crime and degradation that came with saloons and brothels, many other women earned their livelihoods in them, especially wealthy Madams such as Lila Young, Rae McRoberts, Mary Thompson (the African American proprietor of the Minnehaha Saloon), and Lou Graham, the queen of the lot.

Women also split over whether or not they should vote. Some prominent women, such as Eliza Ferry Leary (daughter of a Washington governor and wife of a Seattle mayor), opposed suffrage because they thought politics was unladylike.

Despite this skepticism, the seeds of the suffrage movement were planted early in Seattle. The soil was first tilled by Abolitionists fighting slavery long before the Civil War. Catharine (Paine) Blaine, wife of a minister and Seattle's first schoolteacher, had signed the historic 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of the Rights of Women when she was 18.

In 1871, Sarah Yesler hosted the visit of national women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony. She was praised by some newspapers for proving that women should be "accorded equal privileges with men" and denounced by others as "a Revolutionist aiming at nothing less than the breaking up of the very foundations of society...." Anthony sparked creation of the Washington Woman Suffrage Association before departing.

Prohibition forces supported suffrage. Within a year of the 1883 visit to Seattle of Frances Willard, national head of Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the new King County chapter numbered more than 600 members, including African American women in the Frances Harper branch. They visited the red light district, saloons, and jails, and offered rehabilitative assistance to both men and women, while campaigning for suffrage and prohibition.

The Saloon League Strikes Back

In 1883, the legislature approved the Woman Suffrage bill introduced by Representative Joseph Foster from the Duwamish River Valley. Bells rang and guns boomed as suffragists celebrated their victory -- and promptly voted towns dry and banned brothels and game rooms.

The Saloon League fought back in the courts. In 1888, Nevada Bloomer, a Spokane saloonkeeper’s wife, arranged to have her ballot rejected in a municipal election so that she could challenge the woman suffrage law. The Territorial Supreme Court ruled against her, voiding the suffrage law, and she declined to appeal. "We have been despoiled of our crown of liberty!" cried the pro-suffrage president of the WCTU.

The wealth produced by the 1897-1898 Klondike gold rush flooded Seattle’s brothels and gambling halls with money, but it also financed a new establishment of professionals and merchants. Middle- and upper-class women gathered in clubs such as the Women’s Century Club to found orphanages, hospitals, cultural societies, and social services.

Open town advocates included City Councilman (later mayor) Hiram Gill, and The Seattle Times. Opposed were a growing body of Progressives who supported municipal ownership of utilities, labor unions, and women's suffrage. Pragmatic orators such as Emma DeVoe joined forces with others such as Spokane's May Arkwright Hutton to lead the movement to victory.

On November 8, 1910, Washington’s male voters ratified the woman suffrage amendment by a margin of almost two to one. Washington became the fifth state in the nation to grant women’s right to vote. Newly enfranchised women promptly booted Hiram Gill and his cronies out of office and enacted Prohibition in Washington in 1916.

Meanwhile, local suffragists such as African American Bertha Pitts Campbell and future Seattle mayor Bertha Knight Landes put their shoulders to the wheel of the national suffrage campaign. In August 1920 the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified, at long last.

It declares, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The principle seems self-evident today, but achieving it was anything but easy.

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